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About Cassandra Balchin

Cassandra Balchin is the Chair of the Muslim Women's Network, UK. She was a journalist based in Pakistan for many years and was part of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). She is a freelance researcher, writer and human-rights advocacy trainer.

Articles by Cassandra Balchin

This week's editor

Rosemary Belcher-2.jpg

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Development and religion: ambivalent policy, grounded practice

Development policy seems to swing between a Marmite-style love-it-or-hate-it approach to religion. Yet practice on the ground is more subtle—and more effective. Cassandra Balchin suggests why this gap exists between policy and practice

Jewish. Orthodox. Feminist. Israeli.

Orthodox Jewish feminists may seem to outsiders to be a contradiction in terms. But as Cassandra Balchin discovers while talking with Israeli Orthodox Jewish feminist, Dr. Debbie Weissman, Jewish politics in Israel is anything but straightforward.

Having our cake and eating it: British Muslim women

The arguments about family law rights in Britain's Muslim communities are bound up with racism and sexism. Those who have a political stake in being seen as the legitimate representatives of an essentialised Muslim community are part of this problem, says Cassandra Balchin

Sitting in judgement: for men only?

As the move to appoint women judges in Muslim countries gathers pace, how far is this a guarantee of access to justice for women, especially in family law cases?

A rose and a duck: labelling religious fundamentalisms

When it comes to religious fundamentalisms women's rights activists say Shakespeare was wrong: the way we name things does affect the way we engage with them. To address the phenomenon more effectively, it's better to use the duck test.

Progressive male Muslim preachers: oxymoron or reality?

In their rush to find suitable allies to help control 'extremism', states as well as non-governmental organisations are often overlooking ordinary, individual male preachers who are taking a stand despite the risks it entails

Why do women turn religious fundamentalists on?

The more I work on projects to research religious fundamentalisms and advocate for resistance and challenge to their absolutist and intolerant world vision, the fewer answers and the more questions I have

Negotiating Bliss

The bliss of an egalitarian and just relationship between spouses cannot be achieved through a sheet of paper. But Cassandra Balchin writes that in Muslim contexts efforts to take a fresh look at marriage contracts is certainly a step towards this goal

Last but not least: CEDAW and family law

When injustice in marriage and the family is such a pervasive experience for women and girls, why is family law largely invisible as a global policy issue? What are the prospects for last to no longer remain least?

The wedding dress with attitude

Malians do a good line in combining fashion and public relations for the causes they care about. Fatoumata and Moussa didn’t just decide to get married under Mali’s new family code, they got married in it – literally

Ugandan gays and Muslim women:a common struggle to redefine family

What have gay rights activists in Christian-majority Uganda and Muslim women fighting for family law reform in Asia got in common? You’d be surprised…

Musawah: solidarity in diversity

"This was inspirational. I got the same goose bumps at the rally the day Mandela was released," grinned Waheeda Amien, a founder of Shura Yabfazi which works to empower Muslim women in South Africa, at the close of the five-day launch of Musawah: a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family last week.


"It speaks to the true you that combines your identities as a feminist and as a Muslim woman," commented Hadil el-Khouly, a young Egyptian activist who coordinated the young women's caucus at the event.


"For young women especially these battles are very personal: most young women are living at home, have to fit in with society, face pressures to get married. Musawah takes you out of the isolation"


"When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions!" laughed Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women's Network-UK, gesturing towards the Kuala Lumpur conference hall filled with some 250 women activists and scholars - and a handful of men - from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and countries of the North.


For one young Uzbek woman who cannot be named for her own safety, "We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home."

But for Raissa Jajurie of the Alternative Legal Assistance Centre in the Philippines it is a very different story: "We are a minority group in Mindanao. With the armed struggle going on, it is difficult to look into gender issues among the Muslims, but we are nevertheless taking baby steps. Musawah has inspired us to look at the various possibilities and given us the tools to work with."


Yet the similarities were clearly visible, in particular the misuse of culture and religion to deny women full citizenship and equality in the family. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk put it in her keynote speech, "Culture has become the new stage for global wars. Women stand at the centre." However, the participants in our debate were keen to challenge the dominant understanding which pits human rights against culture: "This meeting has added value to the women's movement with its approach of bringing fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] and universal human rights together," noted Ghada Shawgi of the Khartoum Human Rights Centre, Sudan.


Several participants came from countries such as Iran, Mauritania and Uzbekistan where women's rights activism and public opposition to state gender policies can carry a heavy personal price. Others, such as 31-year old Nassirou Zahara Aboubacar, one of only two women on Niger's Islamic Council, occupy positions of recognized public authority in their countries.


Many women present, especially from North Africa and South Asia had previously used purely secular strategies. But as senior Egyptian feminist Amal Abd el-Hadi explained, "I need to learn now to demystify religion and these claims." Demystification and indeed ‘desacralization' of supposedly divine edicts was also a demand from participants who have long been feminists working within the framework of religion. We have many women leaders but the problem is that their interpretation of the Qur'an is what the religious men tell them. This has got to change first," pointed out Djingarey Maiga, from Femmes et Droits Humains in Mali.


As Special Rapporteur Ertürk commented: "There is a growing convergence around human rights values, whatever their source may be." This holistic framework combines Islamic principles, international human rights, national guarantees of non-discrimination, and analysis drawn from lived realities.


In many ways, a new way of thinking about gender relationships and the family requires new ways of movement-building, and some of those involved in the initiative believe Musawah offers just this. "A lot of feminist organizing is driven by elites. I see Musawah's emphasis on people's daily lives as an opportunity for women at the grassroots to take the lead. It's really about how they see things in their Muslim contexts," says Asma'u Joda from the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment in Nigeria.


Despite the pressure of media interest and the sheer excitement of the event, the participants refused to be pushed into premature campaigning. "The end of this meeting is not a programme of activities and a structure: we need to build a foundation before we construct the house," commented Musawah Planning Committee member Kamala Chandrakirana from Indonesia.


Nevertheless, one concrete outcome was a clear rejection of the proposal from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to produce an alternative to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Another development at the launch was the forming of Musawah caucuses in Africa and among minority communities in the global North, both designed to bring regional perspectives to national campaigns and to the global movement.


Although the focus remains on family laws, the synthesis firmly placed Musawah in its wider context. It acknowledged the impact of conflict, authoritarianism and occupation on rights within the family: "We need democracy so there is space to discuss the role of Islam in our public and private lives," noted Rabéa Naciri of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc. All the many other women's rights initiatives in Muslim contexts, the struggles of women in other religious traditions to reform their laws, and the global human rights movement were likewise represented at the event.


Identifying itself as a ‘knowledge-building movement', Musawah (whose name means ‘equality' in Arabic) not only bridges diversities in terms of context and approach to women's rights but also seeks to bring rights activists and Muslim scholars together as part of the process of generating new approaches to equality and justice in the Muslim family.


The launch was the first time that such a large number of women's rights activists from Muslim contexts and scholars had been brought together. Speaking on behalf of the international planning committee of 12 academics and activists from 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam, Malaysia said, "We hope this will strengthen the arguments used by activists as well as encourage Muslim scholars who support human rights to continue their research. Both of these groups face heavy opposition from some religious groups who claim that ‘non-expert' activists have no right to reinterpret Muslim family laws, and who dismiss the scholarship of those who deviate from patriarchal interpretations."

See also Home Truths in the Muslim family

See also Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality


Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality

A call for equality and justice "in the Muslim family" is being launched by a group of Muslim scholars and activists who insist that in the 21st century "there cannot be justice without equality" between men and women.

Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today.

Home truths in the Muslim family

Muslim women's demands for equality and justice in the family seem to be reaching a critical mass, coinciding with what some are heralding as a ‘paradigm shift' in Muslim theological and jurisprudential scholarship. There is clearly a disconnect between the realities of Muslim society on the one hand and the family laws that govern Muslims on the other. This gap lies at the centre of some of the most heated theological and juristic debates in the Muslim world today.

Children's education and adult politics

The past three years have seen a stream of reports - in Britain and elsewhere - on Muslims and education. In a post-11 September 2001 context of rising religious fundamentalism across all faiths, this does not surprise groups such as the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). Its 2002 conference and research it published in 2004 on the "warning signs of fundamentalisms" found education and youth to be a major ideological battleground between the authoritarian religious right and secular and pluralist forces.

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